The Department of Justice’s Efforts to Investigate and Prosecute Unsolved Civil Rights Era Homicides

Investigations and Prosecutions

The Department has always been willing to reassess and review cold cases when new evidence came to light.  Thus far, the Department’s efforts have resulted in two successful federal prosecutions and three successful state prosecutions.

In 1997, the FBI reopened the investigation into the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Civil Rights Division attorneys worked with the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in conducting a grand jury investigation.  We were able to assume federal jurisdiction because a predecessor statute to the current arson and explosives statute, 18 U.S.C. § 844, provided that in situations where death resulted from an explosive transported in interstate commerce, the penalty was death, and under 18 U.S.C. § 3281, crimes punishable by death have no statute of limitations.  Ultimately, we could not prove that the explosive traveled in interstate commerce, so we released the grand jury investigation to the State of Alabama, which used that investigation as the basis for a successful prosecution of the last two defendants—Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr.—who were involved in the bombing.  The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Doug Jones, was cross-designated to serve as the lead prosecutor in the state trials.  Blanton was convicted in April 2001 and sentenced to four life terms.  Cherry was convicted in May 2002 and sentenced to four life terms; he died in prison in 2004.

In 1999, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi reopened the investigation into the 1966 murder of Ben Chester White, an elderly farm worker, by Ernest Henry Avants, a Mississippi Klansman.  Avants, who had been acquitted in a state trial in 1967, was indicted in 2000 using a statute that prohibits murder on federal property.  In 2003, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  His conviction was affirmed on appeal, see United States v. Ernest Henry Avants, 367 F.3d 433 (5th Cir. 2004).  Avants died in prison in 2004.

In 2007, the Department convicted James Ford Seale for the 1964 murders of 19-year-olds Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Franklin County, Mississippi.  Seale and other members of the Ku Klux Klan forced Moore and Dee into a car and drove the teenagers into the Homochitto National Forest. Mistakenly believing that Dee was a member of the Black Panthers and that he was bringing guns into the county, the Klansmen beat the boys while interrogating them about the location of the weapons. In order to stop the beating, the boys falsely confessed, telling the Klansmen that guns were stored in a nearby church. The Klansmen then split into two groups. One group went to search the church for the guns. The other group, including Seale, transported the victims across state lines, into Louisiana, and then back into Mississippi to a remote location on the Mississippi River. Moore and Dee, bound and gagged, were chained to a Jeep engine block and railroad ties, and were taken by Seale out onto the water in a boat, and were pushed overboard to their deaths. Their severely decomposed bodies were found months later.

Seale and another Klansmen, Charles Edwards, were arrested on state murder charges in late 1964, but the charges were later dropped. The Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Mississippi reopened an investigation into the murders in 2006. The new investigation revealed evidence that supported a federal prosecution under the federal kidnaping statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1201. Edwards, who was in the group of Klansmen who searched the church, but who did not participate in the actual murders, was granted immunity and testified against Seale, the only other surviving participant. Seale was indicted in January 2007, convicted in June 2007 of two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy, and sentenced to three life terms.   Seale's conviction was affirmed on appeal in 2010.  See United States v. James Ford Seale, 600 F.3d 973 (5th Cir. 2010).  He died in prison in 2011.

Another matter in which federal resources contributed to the conviction of a civil rights era murderer involved the reopened investigation into the 1964 the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, an incident commonly known today as the “Mississippi Burning” case.  At the time of the murders, the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, John Doar, personally led the investigation and prosecution of these murders. Despite facing extraordinary hurdles, he was able to secure the convictions of seven of the eighteen defendants charged with these murders; however, they received sentences ranging from just four to ten years of imprisonment.  One of the ringleaders, Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen, was acquitted because one of the jury members refused to convict a “preacher.”  The Department, however, remained committed to ensuring that Justice eventually prevailed in that case. The FBI worked with local law enforcement and provided invaluable assistance on the reopened investigation, which resulted in the indictment of Killen on three counts of state murder charges on January 6, 2005.  Killen was convicted on June 21, 2005 of three counts of manslaughter for his involvement in the case.  The then-80-year-old Killen was sentenced to twenty years for each count, to be served consecutively.

In 2010, the Department assisted in the successful state prosecution of James Bonard Fowler.  In 1965 Fowler, then an Alabama State Trooper, shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson following a civil rights protest in Marion, Alabama.  In May 2007, the District Attorney for Perry County, Alabama, filed murder charges against Fowler.  The FBI assisted local investigators and the District Attorney’s Office in developing the case.  In 2010, the 77-year-old Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

The Department has also expended significant resources to develop cases that ultimately were not prosecutable.  For example, from 2004 to 2006, the Department assisted with the reinvestigation of the murder of Emmett Till and turned over 8,000 pages of investigative materials to the D.A.’s office.  After a state grand jury declined to issue any new indictments in the matter, the FBI met with Emmett Till’s family and released a detailed report of its investigation.  In 2016, the Department closed its further investigation into the Mississippi Burning matter, concluding that no additional prosecutions were possible.

List of cold case closing memoranda

Updated July 28, 2017

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